WASHINGTON—Walking down the street in Washington is like swimming in a sea of Oliver Barrett IV clones from "Love Story."
No matter where you look, men wear the same prepped-out stuff: sack suits, as they're aptly called in the trade, with button-down shirts and rep ties. Or, if a gent's in a festive weekend mood, maybe a navy blazer with gold buttons. You know, the kind of garb that the rest of the country's men reserve for weddings or Sunday brunch with grandma.
What makes Washington America's last bastion of preppiness south of Boston?
Some retailers say that Washington men make all their sartorial decisions when they're interns and never look back. Chris Ingram, the charcoal-suited director of strategic services for a Washington-based software company, admitted that he's one of them.
"In 1981, I went to work for an accounting firm in D.C. and they told me how to dress," he said. "I've dressed the same since 1981. I call it standard business attire."
Another theory is that no one in Washington wants to look richer than a $165,200-a-year lawmaker, especially lawyers and lobbyists who are much richer than that. Lawmakers, for that matter, don't want to look richer than their constituents do.
"They don't want anything too flashy when they go up to Capitol Hill," said Bill Thompson, the manager of Wm. Fox and Co., a small, thriving traditional menswear shop a block from the White House. A double-breasted suit or a trendy three-button jacket, he said, might lead someone to "question their integrity and value system."
If that sounds far-fetched, note the 2004 presidential campaign attack on Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., for "looking French."
Another explanation is more basic: "Men here are cheap," Thompson said. While Euro-sleek Dolce & Gabbana suits start at about $1,350, suits at J. Press, a bastion of northeastern tweediness, cost about $1,000. And that buys two on-sale suits these days at Brooks Brothers, a preppy cult favorite.
"Our bread and butter is the old three-button sack suit," said Arthur Noble, the manager of J. Press' Washington store. That shapeless, waistless, demure-collared suit's been around since 1902.
Compared with J. Press' other outlets in Manhattan, Cambridge, Mass. (Harvard) and New Haven, Conn. (Yale), Washington takes the sack suit prize, Noble said. "D.C. is a lot dressier than other cities."
Guy Voglino, the merchandise manager for Brooks Brothers' 93 U.S. stores, said the same: Washington is the company's sack suit capital.
By contrast, Brooks' tailored 1818 model sells well in New York but has proved a dog in Washington. "Washington is about dressing up, but not about dressing up in fashionable styles," Voglino said.
Robin Givhan, the Washington Post's fashion critic, has urged the city's men to "let out your inner peacock," but to no visible effect. The buyers of European fashion at the capital's Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue stores tend to be foreign students and visitors, she said.
Surprisingly, conservative garb is also the rule for many of Washington's college men. On Saturday nights, Georgetown's M Street drag and barstools are lined with college guys in sport jackets and ironed oxford cloth shirts. You'll even see a tie sometimes.
Abercrombie & Fitch and J. Crew clothing also sell briskly in Washington, but their styles are considered pseudo-preppy because they flirt with fashion. Real preppies "wear clothes for twenty-five years and no one can tell the difference. The fabrics, the cuts, the colors are the same, year after year," according to "The Official Preppy Handbook," a best-seller by Lisa Birnbach that was published in 1980. Twenty-six years later, she's still right.
How committed are Washington men to their conservative threads?
Profoundly. Consider the introduction of Dress Down Fridays to the capital in the early `90s.
While it remains a fashion habit, especially on the West Coast, the challenge dumbfounded Washington men. "They didn't know what to do," said Craig Fox, the owner of the Wm. Fox and Co. shop. "They looked horrible and didn't know what to wear."
Today, only Washington's techies observe Dress Down Friday.
While drab is probably the city's dominant menswear hue, preppies make exceptions. Take the little squares of madras sewn together in such bright and awkwardly paired colors that you'd assume that the seamstress was colorblind. Shorts, pants and jackets made of the stuff fly out of their Washington stores, Brooks Brothers and J. Press say.
So does seersucker, the blue-and-white striped fabric that goes well with straw boater hats. It's so popular in hot, humid Washington that the Senate declares a Seersucker Thursday once every summer.
About 20 senators joined in this arcane sartorial ritual last year. Among them was Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., memorably accessorized with an orange Princeton tie and white bucks.
"I'm not a seer and I'm not a sucker," grumbled Republican Sen. Pat Roberts, a Kansas populist. "But if you want to look like Pat Boone and sell ice cream on the Senate floor, that's your business."
(Kansas City Star Washington correspondent Matt Stearns contributed to this story.)
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): PREPPYCAPITAL
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